Thursday, August 8, 2013

Thor -- wisdom and humility contrasted with recklessness and arrogance

Director: Kenneth Branagh, 2011 (PG-13)

What do you get when you cross a classic actor-turned director with a classic comic book hero? You get a Shakespearian version of a graphic novel. Or, turning it around, you get a Norse take on Shakespeare’s “Henry V”,which is how Kenneth Branagh, that fine actor who directed Hamlet, conceptualized this motion picture adaptation of Marvel’s Thor.

The movie opens in the dead of night on the New Mexico desert. Three astrophysicists, led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace) are chasing some electromagnetic disturbance monitored from their RV. When they get caught up in the swirling dust raised by an intergalactic portal, they abruptly bump into a strange man: Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

After this rapid prologue, Branagh takes us to Asgard, the home of the Norse gods, as he establishes the mythology in the extended first act. We meet Odin (Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs), the king and old “all-father”, Thor, god of thunder, and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), along with Thor’s band of brothers.

The themes of the story become evident from this first act: the father’s wisdom contrasted with the son’s recklessness. The former will be stable and constant, while the latter will force personal growth through Thor’s character arc.

The wisdom comes across first when Thor is young. Odin tells him, “A wise king never seeks out war, but he must always be ready for it.” Odin clearly symbolizes the patriarch in a pantheon of gods. He reminds us of the Almighty God, sovereign ruler, worshiped in the Christian faith. God is the fountain of wisdom -- “wisdom and power are his” (Dan. 2:20) – and the source or giver of wisdom – “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (Jas. 1:5). Like Odin, he desires not to go to war, but when forced to do so, he is willing to pick up the mantle. Satan forced his hand at creation and God has been involved in a spiritual battle ever since, with the victory likely to be secured in the climactic battle at Armageddon (Rev. 19).

Act one concludes when Thor in a fit of supreme recklessness takes his friends to fight against the sworn enemy, the Frost Giants, via the portal. Despite defying his father’s commands, he brings these two nations on different worlds to war. Odin, enraged, declares, “You are a vain, greedy, cruel boy!” With that, he strips Thor of his hammer, his amulets, and his power and banishes him to the realm of earth, where he is merely a ripped and cut hunk, not a superhero.

Odin’s wife Frigga (Rene Russo) comments further on Odin’s wisdom to Loki: “There’s always a purpose to everything your father does.” This is as true of his exile of Thor as his selection of Loki not to be king.

Once again, this is reminiscent of God the Father. He always has a plan. As the prophet Jeremiah declares, God has “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11) His eternal plans encompass everything from creation to culmination, including personal development for those who follow Jesus: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 3And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:29-30) He certainly does nothing without a reason and a purpose.

The second and third acts take place mostly on earth and comprise Thor coming to terms with his arrogance and recklessness. It takes a woman to help: Jane. While the fish-out-of-water aspects are touched on briefly, especially in a café scene, they are not developed. Instead, we see Thor resign himself to his fate when he finds he can no longer pick up his own hammer. This pivotal scene sets him on his knees and becomes the turning point in his growth.

Kenneth Branagh has a wonderful cast of actors, but they don’t have a lot to work with. Hopkins seems to be having a blast as Odin, the supreme king. He blusters and rages, all-powerfully. Hemsworth, in a star-making role, certainly looks the part as Thor, even if he speaks campy, mock heroic dialogue in a somewhat stiff manner. Stellan Skarsgard is more or less wasted as Erik Solvig, Jane’s mentor and friend. And Portman is a most unlikely astrophysicist. Yet, despite the superficiality and the staginess of some of the action sequences, this film is fun. And it does show a hero’s development.

The Thor of act one is arrogant and reckless, caring less for his wise father and more for adventure with his friends. He worries not what consequences he may cause for others; he simply wants to have fun by drinking and daring, feasting and fighting. He is a spitting example of the proverb: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). His fall is literal as well figurative, mythological as well as metaphorical.

The third act of Thor culminates in his growth and exemplifies another proverb: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Prov. 11:2). Thor learns humility; he learns the value of life; he learns the significance of relationship. In one scene, he even adopts a Christ-like mantle of sacrifice. Although his growth is abrupt, it drives to heart of the movie and instills it with spirit and makes it fun.

As the old song goes, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land.” Well, when Thor had a hammer, he was an immature brat. Without his hammer, he learns humility and teaches us that lesson with a does of humor.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs 

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